I grew up in a churched culture. From the time I left the hospital until I graduated high school, I was put through every program, participated in every activity, and was faithful to every event our local church had to offer. Children’s church, R.A.’s (Royal Ambassadors), Bible Drill, Children’s & Youth Choir, Puppet Ministry, Youth Group/Ministry, Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Christmas/Easter Dramas… you name it, I was in it.
I was converted at the early age of 8, right in the middle of all the busy life a committed church-goer. Looking back, however, one of the most glaring (and I would add scandalous) omissions is that my church never taught me how to live. I knew how to do a ton of religious things, not the least of which was checking off the boxes on my tithe envelope, but when it came to living out my faith as a disciple of Jesus, I really had no clue. I just knew how to get in the system and let the system do its thing.
The System and Spirit Within Christendom
What this system has produced, rather unintentionally I might add, is a spirit of consumerism through the culture of Christendom. In this system, who you are (identity) is defined by what you do (performance). I am a Christian because I go to church, and the fruit of my faith is manifested in my participation and religious performances. This system works within Christendom because Christianity and culture has been syncretized so that being religious or good is tantamount to being a disciple of Jesus.
The metrics for this appraisal of religious devotion are the church’s programs, activities, and events (think gatherings and special services). Instead of teaching disciples of Jesus how to live in the world, we take them out of the world and teach them how to be busy in the church building/campus. The centralizing effect made the church like the indoor shopping mall, servicing the needs, wants, and preferences of all within Christendom. The consumer was in control, and the church was there to make sure their product was good enough to have them buy into their church.
But just like the indoor mall has seen its day, so has Christendom. There has been a great divorce between Christianity and culture in recent years, and fewer and fewer people are attracted to this religious marketplace mentality. Ironically, many proponents in this system are lamenting the lack of enduring fruit from this well-oiled, efficient system.
Why is it that around 1% of Christians ever share their faith? Could it be that they do not know any unbelievers? Could it be that they have never been taught how to love their neighbor? Could it be that their understanding of evangelism is exceptionally gifted leaders using an extraordinary platform rather than ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality?
Why is it that there is little qualitative distinctiveness between disciples of Jesus and those in the world around them? Could it be that we have assumed the gospel and replaced it with behavioral modification? Could it be we have substituted repentance and faith with try harder and do better? Could it be that we have trained people to value programs and activities in place of authentic community and missional living? Could it be that we have measured religious activity and assumed that is the same thing as pursuing holiness?
The Bottom Line for Living Now
Here’s the bottom line: Jesus has called all who believe in Him to be His disciples. Our goal is to become like Him and represent Him in the world. Our identity is not defined by what we do but what He has done on our behalf. Our identity as a disciple does not turn on when we are in a “house of worship.” It is on all the time because “this is my Father’s world.”
Disciples of Jesus need a biblical metric for evaluating their lives, and church programs, activities, and events do not meet that standard. One of the roles I lead in during our gatherings is connecting with new people who attend for the first time. Occasionally, new people will ask the question, “What kind of programs do you offer? What kind of activities can we get involved in?” These are the questions of consumers from the culture of Christendom. Churches do them no service by giving them a way to be busy and yet experience no life change. Churches do themselves no favor by thinking they need to “sell their church” to such people. What these people need is to be taught how to live by a church who are committed to living out their identity as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession”.
When churches replace activities, programs, and events with gospel, community, and mission, the efficient system will be replaced with a glorious mess where Christ is in control, not the consumer. Instead of feeling the need to be the “best show” in town, churches are freed to offer the best grace of our beautiful Savior. Religious people in the system of Christendom know that it is a safe place to hide, a sure place of never truly being known. Disciples who live by repentance and faith have no fear of being known for who they truly are because they are living in the good of the gospel, not the shaky goodness of their religious checklist. For the church, we are not so concerned about disciples attending our stuff as much as we seeing them live their lives in the world around them. Let’s get rid of celebrating the props of religious performance and celebrate a life well lived through humble praxis!
Show Them How to Live
I am convinced that most churches are missing the point at the most fundamental level of Christian living. For most of my life, I was never taught how to live as a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps that is because no one else around me was taught that either. We just did what everyone else did and got busy at it. But it does not have to be this way! Christians learn to live by living out their lives in light of the gospel with a gospel community on mission in the world around them. Enough with teaching Christians how to act as Christians on Sunday. We need a view of disciple-making that trains Christians how to walk “in his steps” wherever and whenever that journey takes them.
Consider the questions that are being asked, especially about what is not being asked or talked about. How much of our lives are “off the table” because we have divorced everyday living from our identity as a disciple of Jesus? Consider the content of Christian conversation, especially if people are talking about how they are discovering new areas in their lives that are being brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ as they grow in repentance and faith. Consider the subject of people’s prayer requests, especially if they are about matters tangential at best to their life, relationships, and involvement in the world. And consider what followers of Jesus are satisfied with, especially if they are more comfortable with being a consumer of religious activities than a disciples consumed with Jesus.
There are teenagers right now in your life who need to know how to live in a world full of temptation, peer pressure, and acceptance. There are young professionals in your life who need to know how to live in a world telling them life is about making a living, being successful, and moving up the ladder. There are young families in your life who need to know how to raise their children not to be Pharisees, but disciplined and trained in a gospel-formative way. I could go on. But this kind of living does not get accessed by taking the pill or checking in once a week on Sunday. They need to be shown how to live by people who are living it out. It’s messy. It’s hard. But it’s glorious. Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it in full (John 10:10). Let us teach disciples to know what that means and live that out!
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Tim Brister has served as a pastor and elder at Grace Baptist Church since June 2008. Tim's passion is to demonstrate a life that trusts God, treasures Christ, and triumphs the gospel. Tim is the Director of PLNTD, a church planting network in association with Founders Ministries. He's also the director of The Haiti Collective, organizer for Band of Bloggers, and creator of P2R (Partnering to Remember) and the Memory Moleskine.
You can read more about Tim on his blog, Provocations and Pantings.